It is the most wonderful time of the year. Snow is falling. Frost is biting. Playoff football is in the air. Let’s put our feet up and cast our eyes to the fringes of playoff contention.
1. Buffalo Bills (11-3); 2. Kansas City Chiefs (11-3); 3. Cincinnati Bengals (10-4); 4. Tennessee Titans (7-7); 5. Baltimore Ravens (9-5); 6. Los Angeles Chargers (8-6); 7. Miami Dolphins (8-6)
New England Patriots (7-7)
After the debacle at the end of last week’s game, the Pats are back to .500. Their offense remains broken. Their defense remains the best in the league – since Week 5, Bill Belichick’s group has comfortably outpaced the league in EPA per play, a measure of down-to-down performance. Belichick and company would be deluding themselves, however, if they think they can wriggle into the postseason and cause any kind of disruption with the current state of the offense. Mac Jones can barely get a play off in time. There’s no rhythm. Receivers create no separation. Aside from the running game, they’re unable to generate any kind of explosive plays.
They face a daunting final three games: home to the Bengals and Dolphins; at the Bills. At this point, avoiding the playoffs altogether sounds preferable to sneaking in and being shellacked by the Bills or Chiefs in the first round.
Chances: Time to turn to the draft
New York Jets (7-7)
If you squint close enough, you’ll notice there’s not also much distance separating the Jets and Patriots. Both have best-in-class defenses. Both have issues on offense: One is broken by design and dodgy quarterback play; the other is beset by injuries… and dodgy quarterback play.
The Jets have lost three on the spin, failing to score more than 20 points in two of the three losses. The backbone of this Jets’ roster is good enough to compete deep into the AFC postseason. They have speed at all three levels of defense. They create pressure with four. Sauce Gardner walked into the league as the game’s top cornerback – and continues to (somehow) get better with each passing week.
The issue: Who’s lining up at quarterback? Mike White will miss the week’s game with the Jags with a rib injury, which means another start for the wild stylings of Zach Wilson. New York’s offense functions more seamlessly, more efficiently, with more rhythm, with White at the helm than with Wilson. In an idealized world, the Jets would ask Wilson to play it safe over the following weeks. To sacrifice a chance at wow Plays in exchange for some order and certainty. To limit the turnovers and put the ball in the hands of the defense alone to decide games. But that would be like asking Mr Blobby to perform Hamlet.
With the Jaguars, Seahawks and Dolphins left on the schedule, it won’t be an easy close to the season. But the Jets have a shot. They walk into every matchup knowing that with their defensive line they have the top overall unit on the field – one that can create enough chaos to take the team to nine wins.
Chances: Doomed by the quarterback room
Jacksonville Jaguars (6-8)
You might not have noticed, but the Jags still have a shot to win the craptastic AFC South. And they should! The Jags are the best team in the division, records damned.
They’re young, explosive, and maddeningly inconsistent. Close your eyes and you can picture it now: The Jaguars sneak into the playoffs on the strength of Trevor Lawrence’s arm and the team’s frenzied defense and lose in the wild-card round by 40. There’s also a world in which the defense coalesces, Lawrence He continues his ascension toward superstardom, and Jacksonville goes on a Cincy-inspired run all the way to the AFC title game. No other team has such a varied degree of outcomes.
This is what young teams are supposed to do. They lose big. They lose close. They win close. They win big. The Jaguars have shifted to that third point along the timeline. It wouldn’t be a stunner to see them hit the fourth landmark before the season’s end. They close with games at the Jets, at the Texans and home to the Titans, in what could be a winner-takes-all matchup.
We know this for sure: No playoff team wants to see Lawrence and the Jags’ uber-athletic defense running onto the field in January.
Chances: Not great, but could be worse
Las Vegas Raiders (6-8)
The Raiders have found their footing over the past month. Some of the ghastly offensive executions have vanished. The one-score game luck has swung in their favor after some brutal bounces of the ball, ropey coaching decisions and officiating miscues cost them earlier in the year. Over the past five games, they averaged 27 points, going 4-1, with the lone loss coming in the what-were-they-thinking Thursday night against Baker Mayfield and the Rams.
Something has clicked. The offense has more flow. They’re hammering people with the run. The defense, outside of Maxx Crosby, has shown a pulse. They’re not a complete team – they may not even be a good team – but they have enough difference-makers on both sides of the ball to beat anyone.
Their schedule the rest of the way is fairly light. First up is a beatable Steelers side. Then they host the Brock Purdy-led Niners, a difficult but not entirely daunting task. Then it’s an end-of-season matchup with the Chiefs, who may already be locked into a playoff side and therefore resting their starters.
Chances: Creeping steadily upwards
1. Philadelphia Eagles (13-1); 2. Minnesota Vikings (11-3); 3. San Francisco 49ers (10-4); 4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-8); 5. Dallas Cowboys (10-4); 6. New York Giants (8-5-1); 7. Washington Commanders (7-6-1)
Detroit Lions (7-7)
Only one time in league history has a team made the playoffs after starting 1-6, but Detroit is on its way to joining that club.
The Lions are the hottest team in the league. Everything they touch on offense leads to yards and touchdowns. They’re hitting more explosive pass plays through the air than any offense in the NFL other than the Dolphins. With the game on the line, they’re throwing passes on third-and-7 to their All-Pro-caliber left tackle. Ben Johnson, the team’s OC, has risen to the top of the league’s head-coach-in-waiting rankings as the coaching carousel starts to roll around. Johnson has tapped into the strengths of Jared Goff, with the quarterback playing his best football since he piloted the Rams to the Super Bowl.
There have been signs of life on defense, too. As Dan Campbell predicted back in August, it was going to take Detroit until Week 8 to learn to tackle. And since Week 8… the Lions lead the NFL in the fewest number of missed tackles and explosive runs conceded. That, plus a newfound tenacity in the secondary, has seen the Lions’ defense vault up the most essential of metrics: efficiency (18th) and turnover margin (sixth).
It’s been fun watching the Lions work through the early-season Malaise. They’re not the most talented team. But in an iffy NFC, they have enough pieces to sneak into the playoffs and win a postseason game on the road.
Chances: Just shy of 50/50
Seattle Seahawks (7-7)
The playoffs essentially start this week for Seattle. The Seahawks head to Kansas City to take on the Chiefs before they return home to play the Jets in week 17. They Will need to win of those games – one a potential shootout; one against the league’s most stubborn defense – to have any shot at playing in January.
One thing they have going for them: They can score with anyone. No one has more deep passing yards or scores this season than the combination of Geno Smith, DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett – and this in a league with the Miami trio of Tua Tagovailoa, Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. Seattle are one of only eight teams to have scored more than 350 total points all season – a group that puts them among the elite of the elite (the Chiefs, Bills, Bengals, Eagles and Cowboys).
Yet of that group, the Seahawks are the only team to cross that 350-point threshold to have a net-zero point differential. And while the Lions’ defense has been on the rise, Seattle’s has begun to decline. It’s a high-variance group reliant on turnovers to overcome talent disparities.
Chances: Must win in Arrowhead (oof!)
Green Bay Packers (6-8)
Any shot the Packers have at rescuing something from this shipwreck of a season will come down to whether or not they can beat the Dolphins on Christmas Day. Miami have lost three in a row, albeit against three playoff sides – and two of the four best teams in the NFL. The Packers are on a two-game winning streak, albeit against two sides already more focused on next season.
Green Bay’s offense has found a new gear since the horror show in Detroit almost two months ago. That matchup represented the nadir of the Aaron Rodgers And His Rookie Wide Receivers Experience. Since then, the Pack has averaged 26 points a game, a high-water mark from any five-game stretch this year.
More troubling than the once-sputtering offense is the defense. Banged-up, overly passive and often devoided by fresh ideas, the Packers’ defense has cratered. It opened the 19th year in EPA per play, keeping games tight as Rodgers and the offense worked through their identity crisis. But since Week 6, the group has collapsed. They’re now 28th in EPA per play with an allergy to third-down stops.
Chances: Need a Christmas miracle
The NFC South trio: Carolina Panthers (5-9); New Orleans Saints (5-9); Atlanta Falcons (5-9)
In this stupid, polarized climate of haters and dubious “well, actually” takes, there is one thing we can all agree on: The NFC South should be booted into the ocean. One of these teams is going to make the postseason, which is the kind of crime against football that will surely lead to a prosecution in the Hague.
The winner of this division will host a playoff game. The Bucs currently lead the pack with six – count them: six! – wins. But one game back in the loss column, there is still a path for either Carolina, New Orleans or Atlanta to squeeze in if they win two of their final three games.
Panthers v Lions; at Bucs; v Saints
Saints – at Browns; at Eagles; v Panthers
Falcons – at Ravens; cardinals; v Bucs
The best bet is that the Bucs will hold serve. But if not, the Panthers are the most likely to be waiting. They’ve been a different side since Steve Wilks took over as interim coach – even as the front office threw the roster to the wolves. They are smart, physical and execute the little things that lead to wins. If they can hang with the Lions this week, then they’ll have a shot to play spoiler in Tampa Bay and to perhaps slip into the playoffs with a losing record.
Chances: So you’re saying there’s a chance?